This article was originally published by WireTap magazine

Suemedha Sood

September 5, 2008

Anima La Voy wasn’t very political when she graduated from college in Richmond, Indiana in 2004. In fact, she didn’t even know what the term “swing state” meant. Pretty interesting for someone who would go on to found Swing Semester, an organization based around the electoral significance of historically contested states.

La Voy

was managing a vintage clothing store when she finally did find out what a swing state was–and that Indiana wasn’t one. Frustrated that her vote wasn’t statistically likely to make a difference, she came up with a plan. She would move to the nearest swing state, Ohio, and get out the vote in every way she could. Not only did she follow through with that plan, but she was able to convince 25 of her friends to do the same. Thus, Swing Semester was born.

In its second installment, Swing Semester is once again getting young people to move states and start organizing. This time, though, it’s doing that in a slightly different way. Swing Semester is hooking college grads and college students up with progressive nonprofit jobs all over the country. One of its main goals is to build stronger progressive communities in swing state cities by getting local families and businesses involved in the progressive movement.

“Swing Semester’s mission,” says La Voy, “is to bridge theory with action.” La Voy, the executive director and co-founder of Swing Semester, talked to Wiretap about her unique organization.

WireTap: What exactly is Swing Semester?

La Voy

: The point is to use the momentum of the election cycle, and the opportunity of all the jobs in swing states for getting out the vote, to really bring young people into the progressive movement for a lifetime.

Swing Semester basically goes out and recruits young people to move to swing states and we help them find jobs. We help them write resumes, figure out what their options are, and then they find jobs with progressive organizations and campaigns–nonprofits that are doing things around the election… .

We often help these young people to get their very first jobs. Then we place them with a host family in that community. Hosts are usually very eager to open their doors to be helpful to the election and to the young people. And then for 8-10 weeks over the fall, young people get paid at their jobs, they work those jobs, they stay with host families, and they’re formed into a really tight community. [Swing Semester staff members] help participants host local events, potlucks, film screenings, author events in the community. Our effort is not just to have young people do the work and get out the vote, but actually be on the ground and add new ideas and new dimensions to what progressive organizing looks like.

The other really major part of it is the educational element. We now have a syllabus that pulls together some of the leading ideas in progressive politics. Eight units are [taught] over the course of eight weeks in a series of reading groups. They’re totally optional but they’re really exciting, so people seem to be pumped to be a part of them. The first unit, [for example] is on the irrationality of the voter. It includes some blog posts and YouTube videos and excerpts from the types of books political organizers are reading…. [The syllabus] is really giving some context to young people who are hitting the ground running and being told to knock on 200 doors a day.

WireTap: So, is it like a job recruitment program?

La Voy

: No. The element at the very beginning is that we help them find jobs, but that’s only about a quarter of the program. Swing semester is really a radical idea. It’s much more like a political immersion program. It’s like a radically new form of organizing, and it’s also very common-sense. Campaigns often put staffers and canvassers together, holed up in a hotel or in an apartment. We see value of getting the host families [and their communities] involved. Those are swing state voters. That’s where minds are changed and conversations happen…. Plus, young people are doing projects in those communities–like film screenings and author signings–to get people to talk not just about candidates but larger progressive issues.

WireTap: How did Swing Semester get started?

La Voy

: It was started by myself and another young person in 2004. I was 23 and I had just graduated college, and my friend was in his last days of college. We were in rural Indiana and I had just figured out what a swing state was. I didn’t know what it was before. I was not political. I was passionate, though…. When I figured out what a swing state was, I realized my vote wasn’t really going to matter–and that I needed to move to a swing state and [get out the vote] there. But the problem was, my co-founder and I couldn’t figure out what the next step was. I definitely didn’t know what my options were and I didn’t know how I was going to pay for rent for 10 weeks in a strange city. I didn’t know how I was going to afford it on a canvasser’s salary…. So we used our networks at Earlham College, where we went to school. And eventually, we convinced 26 people to move states. Then we helped them get jobs and we all went to Ohio, in three different cities, and recruited host families so we could do this work.

In the end, we knocked on 140,000 doors. First off, no one left the program. Everyone was so jazzed. It created a kind of community. The long-term result that we saw was the fact that people had totally changed. By the end of the cycle, it was like all of our friends were looking at us like we were really political. Suddenly, we were exposed to all these new ideas and we soaked up this new energy…. By the end of the process, all of us looked at each other as really political, and frankly kind of hardcore. People had shifted–because they really hadn’t started out political. That was sort of the magic of the experience.

WireTap: How are you going about getting young people involved?

La Voy

: It’s been hard. We’re looking for young people who haven’t been involved before. We’re trying to hit people before they sign up for jobs this fall and try to move them to be a part of something that’s going to be historic…. We’re eager to get as many young people on the ground as we can.

WireTap: Are you specifically targeting recent college graduates?

La Voy

: It’s mostly recent college grads. Swing Semester’s a great bridge between figuring out whats next for you in the world when you graduate, to figure out whether politics or political work is right for you, and to get connected to nonprofits and other things. We can even support people in getting academic credit, if they decide to take a semester off. For the most part, it is the recent college grads who are interested, mostly because there a lot of folks out there looking for what’s next. It’s sort of a natural community for us.

WireTap: How does the educational side of things–your syllabus for instance–play into the kind of community-building you strive for?

La Voy

: One of our units in our syllabus is actually just on food, which seems like an unlikely choice because it’s not about candidates. But when we begin looking at politics through the lense of food, people become political three times a day. It becomes a practice–determining the difference between organic or local or Wal-Mart-bought. It suddenly has people thinking about systems and where food comes from…

Progress, as we define it, is distinct from just being political. It’s larger than that. We think of “progressive” as being a movement, being a way of looking at the world, having a lot to do with the common good and freedom with responsibility. Those are some of the elements of how we would define progressive. Food is the biggest export in the U.S., but people don’t relate to it that way. We don’t relate to how food is connected to our economy. We don’t connect the dots and recognize how legislation is impacting the kinds of foods that are available to us. So being able to look at that system and being able to recognize the role of the government and the role of the economy. Being able to recognize the systemic value of having foods that are organic and locally grown for the environment and climate is something that is wholly progressive.

WireTap: Is Swing Semester concentrating on the presidential election?

La Voy

: Nope. It’s funny because our name is clearly referencing swing states, which only happen during the presidential election. But we’re more equal opportunity actually. There’s a lot of exciting work being done. A lot of our young people are going to canvass to support [presidential] candidates, but we also have people working on more local issues. We have someone greening roofs in Denver, [for instance].

WireTap: What are some other examples of local issues your participants are interested in focusing on?

La Voy

: Climate is one. A number of our young people are doing environmental and climate issues. Some people are working on pro-choice issues. At least one person is working at ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) doing more getting-out-the-vote, community empowerment, civic engagement type stuff. We wanted to reach out to people who are involved in all sorts of progressive nonprofit work.

WireTap: Did you think young people in swing states are more politically aware?

La Voy

: There’s a really big difference between the activity of young people who are living in swing states versus those who aren’t. Because those who aren’t, don’t tend to vote as much. There’s like a 13-point difference, because they know that it’s not really going to matter. That means that there are a lot of people in non-swing states that are not active. Being able to get them to a swing state kind of feels like you’re giving the disenfranchised a voice sometimes.

WireTap: One of the cities Swing State is going to be in is Virginia Beach. Can you talk about Swing State’s plan for its work in Virginia?

La Voy

: Well, we don’t endorse particular candidates, we don’t have a stance on that. But what we want to do is get our young people to where the action is hot, where the conversations are going to be hot, where the ads are all over TV. In Virginia, in terms of impact, our participants will be knocking on a hundred thousand doors in Virginia Beach. They’re going to be very excited to be part of a place that hangs in the balance in terms of the election. There’s going to be a lot of attention and a lot of buzz all the way to the last day there.

WireTap: One purpose of Swing Semester seems to be to help recent college graduates break into the field of political organizing. Can this model be applied to other fields?

La Voy

: Yes. There are groups out there in other arenas that have similarities to what we’re doing. Teach for America and Americorps are a couple. But I like to think about Swing Semester as a full-body slam into poltiics–or into what it means to be progressive and what it is to be a progressive citizen. I think it’s a model we could be using in a lot of different arenas. This is a good way to get people involved in something I think a lot of them want to be involved in. If you talk to young people, they’ll be buzzing about the election but they won’t necessarily see a way in. I think our model is really taking on the demand for interest in how to take those first steps.

WireTap: Are most of your participants interested in careers in the nonprofit sector or just interested in impacting the 2008 election?

La Voy

: I’m not entirely sure. In 2004, it was about half and half. I know that this year, we have some really exciting applicants. People are driving from South Carolina to make it to Denver. People are leaving their longtime love of local football–which for some participants is a really big deal!–to come up and be involved in something that is new for them.

I hope this isn’t just a careerist option. We need a lot of people throughout the country who are engaged and informed and organizing citizens–not all moving to D.C. to get jobs. Because once you get to Washington, all you want is engaged citizens out there [in states across the country].

WireTap: Some people would say that programs like Swing Semester provide cushioning for college students instead of thrusting them out into the real world. How would you respond to that?

La Voy

: I would say yes. One of the most valuable things about the college experience, for those who are recent college grads, is a community. That’s what you remember–your friends, living in the dorm, having conversations late at night. That’s really what Swing Semester provides canvassers on the ground–a community and stimulating ideas of what they’re doing and why. As well as a paycheck. Which is not a bad thing at all!

WireTap: What would you say to applicants who have never canvassed before–who might be afraid of getting doors slammed in their faces?

La Voy

: Having a door slammed in your face can be very frustrating or very educational. Something that the Swing Semester community provides is support. [Without that], it can be very frustrating if it’s day after day and it’s just you. But if you have someone to go home to and talk about your worst story ever or best canvassing day ever. Or even to get curious, like ‘Hmm, why are people reacting this way?’ If we can have some curiosity instead of reactivity to that experience, it becomes very educational. There’s no education like canvassing. There’s no way to get to know the American people like organizing door to door.

WireTap: How useful did the 2004 Swing Semester “graduates”–those who complete the program–find the experience? What kind of feedback did you get from them?

La Voy

: 2004 was a scrappier version of what we’ve got now. We had a 100 percent retention. And we had people saying, ‘I never worked so hard in my life; I’ve also never been so fulfilled.’ That was a common theme. There was also a common theme of, ‘Oh my God, I was given more responsibility than I ever could have imagined!’ One girl said, “I went from being a small-town girl to being in charge of a whole get-out-the-vote campaign in a big city in Ohio!”

But mostly, people felt very supported. People said, ‘It made a difference that the rest of you out there doing this alongside me.’

WireTap: You mentioned you’re still recruiting. Is there anything you want to highlight for readers who might be interested in joining?

La Voy

: We are absolutely still recruiting! It’s a really great way to get sort of a holistic education this fall. The cities of Denver and Cincinnati are up first. So people should apply and come! We’ll figure out payment, we’ll figure out scholarships. We just want to get as many young people involved as possible.

Suemedha Sood is a 2007 fellow in the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The former assistant editor at the Center for American Progress, she is a frequent contributor to WireTap.